Life with Gracie: Stigma still fueling rising rate of HIV among blacks

Nearly half of all gay and bisexual black men in the U.S. will be diagnosed with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — during their lifetime, according to a report last month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Since that announcement, I’ve been waiting for some logical point to declare itself, something that might help me frame a conversation around that startling revelation.

That moment arrived recently when I read about Anthony Gooden and his partner Marquez Tolbert, the gay couple who was doused with boiling water as they lay in bed. And again, just days ago when a Los Angeles dad allegedly shot and killed his 29-year-old son for being gay.

Until these incidents, I had pretty much convinced myself that the CDC’s prediction, and more precisely their explanation — high unemployment, lack of health care, race, poverty and stigma — didn’t make sense. Not in 2016, when the majority of us seem to have made peace with homosexuality.

I was wrong.

The CDC has been predicting a rise in infections since at least 2001, when it was my job to cover the epidemic and researchers found that in six cities, there was a 14.7 percent annual rate of new infections among black gay men ages 23-29. The rate was 2.5 percent among white gay men and 3.5 percent among Hispanic gay men of the same age.

Even then experts said the stigma of homosexuality prevented many black men from identifying themselves as gay and bisexual and kept them from taking preventative measures, getting tested and receiving treatment.

Five years later in 2005, new data showed another increase in infections among black gay men – nearly a quarter of all new infections nationwide, despite overall decreases in the general population.

And while studies show that African-Americans do not engage in riskier sexual behavior compared to those of other ethnic groups, black men overall are almost seven times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetimes.

The reasons remain the same: a higher prevalence in the community, which increases risk of infection with each sexual encounter; lack of access to health care; poverty; and the biggie, stigma.

What I found particularly puzzling was while some states like California and New York have significantly reduced their rates of new infection, the rates continue to rise in Georgia and other Southern states.

That’s true even here in Atlanta, considered something of a gay mecca.

“While Atlanta does continue to attract folks from the LGBTQ community, especially African-Americans, this designation has not reduced the stigma and ignorance that still exists in our community, or the lack of access to health care that is present in those other cities,” said Nicole Roebuck, executive director of AID Atlanta, an organization that provides AIDS prevention and care services. “These factors directly contribute to increases in the risk of infection and makes the epidemic more severe.”

Days after the CDC released its newest findings, Roebuck and I talked at length about the impact of the epidemic here and what she believes fuels the spread.

She suspects the root cause resides in childhood trauma and how it manifests itself.

“I would bet that if we did a screening of people in our cadre and asked if there was abuse in their history it would be alarming,” Roebuck said. “I think we’re missing a huge mental and emotional health component that have to do with feelings of shame and an intense desire to be loved. The need doesn’t go away just because of your status.”

The answers, she believes, are in the community and it starts with giving a voice to those who don’t have one.

“Politicians have to get out of people’s bedrooms and start focusing on people’s humanity,” Roebuck said. “This is a disease that impacts humans’ lives. Let’s get past the detractors, fretting over who marries whom and concentrate on making sure everyone has the right to an education, employment and health care.”

Early on, I mentioned Anthony Gooden and his partner Marquez Tolbert, the gay couple who was doused with boiling water as they lay in bed.

For some time now I’ve been of the mind that society had become more accepting of gay relationships, that gays, lesbians and even transgender needn’t hide their sexual preferences any more.

I made that argument while talking to Roebuck. Apparently I was wrong. Tolbert and Gooden prove that much. And now to add insult to injury, Gooden has been forced into a fight to access money raised on his behalf to cover his medical expenses due to family squabbles.

That’s a crying shame and more proof why more education around homosexuality and HIV is still sorely needed.

Let’s hope there will be cries of outrage not just about these rates of infection but the compounded injustices that may contribute to the spread of the virus.

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